Never before have I had such a visceral sensation of my faith in humanity draining from my body as it did about three quarters of the way through Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. The previous day I watched my better half deep in our couch, her face covered in tears, forcing herself through the same section of the book that more than any other has changed me. In a section of the book covering over 100 pages, Seierstad recounts minute-by-minute in gruesome detail, the worst act of terrorism enacted on Norwegian soil since World War II. This attack left 77 people dead, most of them youth shot point-blank by a white right-wing terrorist. The story, of a confused man on a mission of terror, of young people cut down with bullets for believing in a fair and just world, and of a thousand things going wrong at the same time with the worst possible outcome, is equal parts terrifying and enraging. And out of the fear, anger, and sadness caused by reading it is a powerful sense of purpose in community: We must never let this happen again.
More than a document of terror, One of Us is a reflection of us: the society we’ve built, how we see and treat our fellow human beings, and how hatred and alienation, left unchecked, can lead people to do unspeakable things. One of Us is the story nobody wants to hear that everyone needs to be told.
Terror, by any other name…
In the years since that fateful day in 2011, I’ve resigned to the reality that outside Norway and Europe, these terror attacks and its perpetrator will be forever referred to as the “Oslo bombing” and “Utøya shootings,” perpetrated by a “mass shooter” or “lone gunman.” The terrorist ABB (whose name I will not dignify by using) does not fit the current understanding of the word “terrorist,” at least not in the eyes of North Americans. He is an “ethnic Norwegian” with blue eyes, blonde hair, and pink skin. A christian with right-wing conservative political views, he was the very essence of all that is considered “not a terrorist.” Except he built a bomb, blew up the government quarters, and shot 100 people, most of them several times, at close range, while dressed as a police officer, to start a war and protect Europe from a “Muslim invasion”. Had he been of any other ethnicity, any other faith, or hailed from any other nationality, “terrorist” would be the first word out of everyone’s mouth.
And it was, on the 22nd of July, 2011 when news first broke. I was at home in Vancouver, Canada, about to go to the gym, when my phone started pinging with updates from Norway about an explosion. Several of my friends worked in the government quarter and I spent the next hour trying to get a hold of them when Tweets started appearing from Utøya about shots being fired. At that time, all the major news networks were speculating about Al Quaeda’s involvement, but when it became clear that people were being killed on Utøya, it was equally clear that this was not Al Quaeda.
I spent the following hours on Twitter explaining to anyone who would listen that this must be a right-wing extremist group – that Utøya is a sanctuary for the Norwegian Labor Party’s youth movement. I was shouted down by countless Tweets who were later deleted, told I “knew nothing” about Norway, that terrorism is always perpetrated by Muslims, that this was “inevitable” and “fitting” because of Norway’s “naive” attitude toward Palestine and the Muslim world. When news broke hours later that the perpetrator was indeed a white ethnic Norwegian, the word used in the media changed from “terrorist” to “lone gunman” and everyone began grasping at familiar straws, about mental illness, coercion, sudden psychosis. The cognitive dissonance of being confronted with one of “us” being a terrorist was simply too strong. Meanwhile, in Norway the perpetrator was charged with terrorism and eventually convicted.
The Story of Us
When I finished the book I turned to Angela and said “I’m not sure it was a good idea to read this. I kind of regret it.” She had finished a few days earlier and responded “I think it’s made me a better person.” A few days later, I knew what she was talking about.
Coming out of the haze left by the intensity and brutal reality of what I had read, I felt my thoughts realigning. In a subtle way, it had guided my confused and frustrated thoughts about this event into a clearer understanding of not only what happened, but why, and to whom.
You see, One of Us is not only a book about the terrorist and his actions. It’s a book about the people he attacked, about the lives of those he affected, about the society he grew up in, about multiculturalism, hope, fear, loneliness, togetherness, love, and hate. Seierstad has done meticulous work piecing together the story of ABB from birth, through his radicalization, the attacks, the trial, and his current existence as a prisoner of the state with no hope of freedom. But she spends just as much time telling the stories of some of his victims, their rise through the political youth organization, their hopes and dreams, their tumultuous journey through the teenage years, and in one case, the all too common experience of being a refugee trying to fit in with a new culture.
Reading their stories, you become close to the people. They cease being abstractions tied to headlines from a country far away, turning instead into human beings. It is said we should not speak of the people who commit heinous acts of violence and terrorism but instead of their victims. Seierstad rides this line masterfully, and does so with sensitivity and care. They are not merely characters in a larger story. They are real people, with real lives, and they are just like you and me.
Perspective and acceptance
The book sparked many long discussions about the event. “What is so alarming to think about” Angela said, “is that this guy is the same age as you, from the same place. And had you not moved to Canada, you might have been there, right in the middle of everything.” This is true, and it makes it all the more real for us.
I spent much of my youth in and around Oslo, I walked through the government quarters on a regular basis, and aspired to work there some day just like several of my friends do today. I visited Utøya several times, I know people who went to school with the terrorist, one of the lead characters in the book lived a few kilometers from my parents house and went to my high school. Earlier this year, Angela and I visited the government quarter, where 5 years later the devastation from the bomb is still clearly visible.
This is where the challenge lies, for Seierstad and the book. To an international, and especially a North American audience, Norway is a mythical place of oil, socialism, lutefisk, and polar bears. It’s a weird place nobody visits and few can pin on a map without help, which only shows up in the media when something extraordinary happens. Norway and its culture is so foreign to North Americans that many passages in the book will seem absurd or otherworldly. Like the fact that the terrorist was offered a cup of coffee only minutes after being arrested. Or that police are not armed. Or that his mother was interviewed and released in short order. Or that he now serves a life sentence of 21 years in prison (to be extended indefinitely). To me, this all makes sense, but without the context of being Norwegian, or even European, I wonder if readers will find this too difficult to identify with and too hard to accept.
When I was first introduced to the book, it was through a similar feeling of bewilderment, described by a professor at the University of Oslo and friend of my brother. “It is ununfathomable,” he said, “just how badly prepared we were for this. Like the story of the boat. My Lord, the boat. What incompetence!”
In the aftermath of the attacks, questions were asked about why the police took so long to respond to the event, and why even after arriving at the shores of the lake that surrounds the island, it took an eternity for the police to apprehend the terrorist. This has become one of the centerpieces of Seierstad’s account, and it is the reason for the tears of frustration and incredulity felt by most readers. This is also the only place in the book where Seierstad’s otherwise expertly objective perspective falters and you see glimpses of her personal feelings. Like everyone else, she is incredulous, furious even. Because Norway was unprepared for this, and the police response (or lack thereof) played a large part in increasing the numbers of victims. As you read it, know that those questions you ask yourself, of how reports of an armed man walking away from a bomb and shootings at a summer camp can be ignored by 911 dispatchers, were and are asked by us all. And know that things have changed. But be equally aware that one reason the response took so long was the fact that this terrorist did not fit the expectation. Norway was unprepared for terror, but it was especially unprepared for terror from within.
So, before you pick up the book (and you should), prepare yourself. Norway is a small country with a far more relaxed attitude toward threats, real or imagined. It is perfectly normal for children to walk to school by themselves in the 1st grade, go on trips unsupervised by adults, and join political organizations that end up taking them away from school before they are 18. Education, even post-secondary education, in Norway is state funded and provided to everyone, and very few students drop out of high school. The politicians in Norway are just regular people with regular jobs. You see them walking on the street, going to movies, even shopping at the local store. Violent crime is exceptionally rare, and the criminal justice system is based on rehabilitation and restitution rather than punishment. It is a nation of builders and cooperators: Norwegians are trained to have “Dugnadsånd” or “dugnads spirit” (‘dugnad’ being an untranslatable word that means something like “coming together to do work for the betterment of the community without renumeration or reward”), and are a welcoming people who strive to see the best in everyone. But even in this seemingly idyllic utopia, there are strong undertones of discontent. One of the more popular political parties has been running on a platform of fear and hatred toward “foreigners” and stokes the fires of cultural purity and anti-islamism whenever they have the chance. And many Norwegians feel the government is too much of a nanny state and takes too much of their money.
Like all countries, Norway is complicated. But it is real, and to truly understand this book, you have to accept that life there in the northern part of Europe is fundamentally different from North America.
Once you’ve read the book, you should go on the web and look up some of the central characters. You’ll discover photos and videos of many of the victims and see what Utøya and the surrounding area is like. There is even video of the island only hours before the attack when former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland held a speech about multiculturalism, women’s rights, and the welfare state – all the things the terrorist wanted to destroy. Seeing the photos and watching the videos will make it all more real. Just be warned, there are many photos you’ll find on the web that you’ll wish you never saw.
What we can learn
Like I said earlier, more than anything else, this book is about us, the people who share this earth today. It’s about how our lives intertwine, how our society evolves, how walls and borders are broken down and rebuilt, and how our society is working to redefine itself in an ever more globalized world.
In a subtle but important way, it is also the story of the internet. And this is where I want to end this article. Seierstad makes a valiant effort to explain why the terrorist did what he did, but in the end only he will know. Though he is not clinically insane, his world view is so fundamentally distorted that it is hard for anyone who does not share his particular understanding of the world to comprehend his actions as anything other than insanity. Yet while reading this well documented account, it becomes impossible to ignore the reality that this was a premeditated act of political terrorism, planned and executed to enact lasting change in the structures of our society. He was not crazy. We need to dig further.
As someone who works on and with the web on a daily basis, it is this part of the story I find most chilling. ABB was self-radicalized on the internet. Through blogs, message boards, chats, and other tools, he slowly sank into one of the many echo chambers of hatred and extremism that thrive just below the surface of our common information source. After the attacks, I spent some time researching his sources and realized that while ABB may be the only person so far to have moved from ideas to violent actions, there are thousands, maybe millions of people on the web who agree with him. I like to say that the web is a veneer of amazing ideas covering an endless abyss of the worst of human nature. Follow ABB down the rabbit hole and you’ll realize the biggest threat to modern society is not religious fundamentalists from far away lands, but right-wing anti-government extremists from your own neighborhood. And unlike the “foreign threats” the news media falls over themselves talking about all day long, few talk of the seething hatred that is reaching a boiling point right in our midst – against feminists, against muslims, against atheists and socialists and women and trans people and gays and aboriginals and anyone who is not “just like us”. The biggest threat we face today is complacency about the hatred online. And the worst terror attack on western soil since 9/11 was committed by one of us.